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Misreading the Moderate Middle

"The Moderate Middle is a Myth" proclaims the headline at FiveThirtyEight. The analysis by Lee Drutman doesn't actually deny the existence of moderates. Rather, Drutman merely questions the notion expressed by several pundits that Democrats can win in 2020 by "moving to the center". Drutman's research indicates that the approximately 40% of voters who identify as moderate or independent are not a cohesive voting bloc, and no candidate can win them over by adopting a centrist policy position.

These tropes conjure up a particular image: a pivotal bloc of reasonable “independent” voters sick of the two major parties, just waiting for a centrist candidate to embrace a “moderate” policy vision. And there’s a reason this perception exits: You see just that if you look only at topline polling numbers, which show 40-plus percent of voters refusing to identify with a party, or close to 40 percent of voters calling themselves moderates.1 But topline polling numbers mask an underlying diversity of political thought that is far more complicated.

This shouldn't be a surprise. If there is one characteristic that defines a moderate, it is the rejection of ideologies on principle. It would be a very ironic coincidence if all the people who refuse to adhere to a single ideology could be grouped under a single ideology. Nonetheless, Drutman makes a valiant effort to see if he can find any semblance of group identity.

Drutman first categorizes three different kinds of moderates: Those who identify as "moderate", those who identify as "independent" even if pressed to pick a political party, and those who are undecided about who they will vote for next year. There is, of couse, some overlap in these groups, but this distinction is a good start at defining different types of moderates.


Drutman then looks at survey data to determine where these voters line up on economic policy and immigration, two of the most important issues for the upcoming election. What he finds is that all three groups are hard to categorize. Independents are all over the map. Undecideds are all over the map. And yes, even self-professed moderates are all over the map.

A candidate could find some support among moderates by searching for a middle ground on one or both of these issues. Another candidate could appeal to some moderates by taking a pro-market, pro-immigration stance. Yet another could appeal to other moderates by taking an anti-market, anti-immigration stance. Or by taking the Trumpian Republican pro-market, anti-immigration line, or the liberal Democratic anti-market, pro-immigration view.

Drutman concludes:

The upshot of all this is that if you’re a campaign trying to appeal to independents, moderates or undecided voters — or a concerned citizen trying to make sense of these groups in the context of an election — policy and ideology aren’t good frames of reference. There just isn’t much in terms of policy or ideology that unites these groups.

But this isn't really a conclusion at all. It's just a starting point. Because there is a way to appeal to moderate voters. I'm going to give some unsolicited advice for political candidates, in the unlikely event any of them happen to stumble across this blog.

It's true you can't win all moderates to your cause by staking out a cohesive set of policies or a rigid ideology. If you want to court moderates, you could start by being less of a partisan hack. We don't care about your ideology. We don't care how strong your political convictions are, or what led you to them. We're not interested in why you think the other party's policies are bad for our country. Because the reality is, your party's policies are just as bad. You've developed them in an echo chamber, and even if you've thought through some of the possible consequences, you're not even solving the right problems.

If you really care about this country, you need to be willing to sit down and talk through the issues with members of the other party, and with people who don't identify with a party. You'll need to learn to understand the policy from the perspective of people who are hurt by it, and you'll need to figure out a way to reduce both the extent of the adverse effects and the number of people adversely affected. You'll need to acknowledge that your legislation is only an interim solution that will have unforeseen and unintended consequences, and you'll have to revisit it a few years down the road to fix the problems your solution caused.

You'll have to learn to listen to ideas from the other party, then take those ideas and improve on them. None of this, "We're not going to vote for your reforms, because we don't want you to get credit." None of this, "Let's vote to repeal Obamacare" every month. None of this, "We're going to vote against the president's nominee for the Supreme Court"—or not hold a vote at all. If you want to appeal to moderates, you need to loosen your grip on partisanship and try to work together.

And I don't mean work together in a fake way, like Ross Perot in the 1990s, who promised he'd have all of Congress holding hands and singing Kumbaya if he were elected. The goal is not to turn Congress into a lovefest. The goal is to turn our differences into a strength. Disagree constructively and solve problems.

That's how you win moderate voters. As a side benefit, perhaps you'll start to see your ideology in a different light, and begin to break free from its control.

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